Cathleen Enright
Cathleen Enright

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fighting GMO labeling initiatives on a state-by-state basis is unsustainable, but Cathleen Enright believes consumer-facing, genetically engineered fruits and vegetables could help the technology find popular acceptance.

Speaking at a Sept. 9 United Fresh Produce Association Washington Conference workshop called “The GMO Debate and Impact on Fruits and Vegetables,” Enright, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, urged fruit and vegetable marketers to join the conversation with consumers about food production.

Enright, reviewing the well-accepted use of biotechnology in the health care industry in production of insulin, human growth hormones and other personalized medicines, said anti-GMO forces have focused their energies on food.

Consumers’ relationship with food is different, Enright said, and GMO opponents have “easy pickings” in promoting alarming but false images of food being injected or being combined with genes from animals.

Contrary to images on the Web, there is no banana fish or frog apple, Enright said.

Biotechnology is simply employing breeding technology that is more precise and predictable than traditional selective breeding, she said. The U.S. also has extensive plantings of biotech corn and soybeans, crops that have been fed without problem to billions of animals for more than a decade. Canola and cotton biotech varieties also are widely grown.

Among fruits and vegetables, virus-resistant papayas and squash also are in the market, and insect-resistant Bt sweet corn is marketed by Monsanto.

Biotech crop production has resulted in fewer herbicide and insecticide applications, higher output and less energy and labor use, Enright said.

With the Innate potato and the Arctic apple expected to be deregulated soon, Enright said those varieties represent the first two consumer-facing crops that have come to the market.

The Innate potato is less susceptible to black spot from bruising caused by impact and pressure during harvest and storage than conventional potatoes and has lower levels of asparagine and sugars, according to developers at J.R. Simplot.

The Arctic apple is a non-browning apple developed by British Columbia-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. that promises consumers more eye appeal and less waste.

The introduction of those varieties will be game-changers in a positive way in terms of the technology, Enright said.

She said the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, has developed genetically engineered purple tomatoes that offer high antioxidant levels and Enright said those tomatoes could be approved in North America within a few years.

Enright said anti-GMO forces include about 300 organizations that have devoted their agendas to oppose GMOs. Using tactics that have stoked fear and anger about GMOs, Enright said they have helped organize GMO labeling efforts in 30 states. The labeling initiatives seek to dissuade consumers about the health and safety of biotech foods.

Labeling of GMO foods is a kind of “skull and crossbones” identity that the biotech industry doesn’t want, she said.

“That hasn’t moved the needle on purchasing. Their customers weren’t asking for this,” she said.

Enright said anti-GMO forces were politically well-connected and very organized, making opposing GMO labeling efforts “unsustainable and untenable.” Biotech companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent more than $66 million in the past couple of years to fight GMO labeling efforts.

But biotech companies don’t want to keep pouring more money into the public fight and would rather use those funds for research and development. However, she said the need to communicate about how food is grown and manufactured is critical and the need to do so will only increase.

Enright said the Council for Biotechnology Information began a website called GMO Answers to answer questions from consumers about biotech food. The website has answered 650 questions so far and counting, with 88,000 website visits in August alone and more than 1.5 million page views since it was introduced.

The website has helped consumers and media influencers understand biotechnology, she said.